A Reassessment of the German Role in the Armenian Genocide

Dr Donald Bloxham

There is an underdeveloped and polarized historiographical debate about the exact extent and nature of German involvement. Ulrich Trumpener, Frank Weber and Wolfdieter Bihl have bequeathed a fairly straightforward impression of Realpolitik, where opposition to the murders from within German officialdom was simply outweighed by the interests of the wartime alliance.[1] A case study by Hilmar Kaiser of the fate of the Armenian workers on the so-called Baghdad railway has shown that genuine disagreements over the treatment of the Armenians did occur, both within German ranks and between Germans and Turks, and that these did have ramifications, at least in the short term, for the life-chances of some of the workers.[2] More recently, Kaiser has trenchantly re-affirmed what has perhaps long been apparent from the available documentary sources, namely that there was no uniform German official position on the genocide.[3] Conversely, Vahakn Dadrian has stressed active German complicity in the massacres, and, like Christoph Dinkel and Artem Ohandjanian, has even invoked German ‘stimulation’ of killings and expulsions, with particular reference to the role of German military representatives in Turkey.[4] Wolfgang Gust has concurred with these overridingly negative assessments.[5] The final four scholars suggest that instances of German military and civilian officials objecting to the massacres were insignificant in the face of the general thrust of German policy which, they imply, somehow stood to gain from the murder of the Armenians.
Based upon German and Austrian documentation, this paper seeks to help redress the historiographical balance by adding force to the argument of general German opposition to the genocide at the foreign policy level, while showing the restrictions on ameliorative action imposed under the tight restraints of the Turkish-German alliance. It also reassesses the evidence recently adduced to show that no general indictment may be made of the German military representation in Turkey, suggesting instead that any involvement in the genocide can be traced to only a few individuals rather than any from of group complicity. The analysis is not an apology for German behaviour, but it does show that the more serious accusations that have been laid are often simply unfounded. More generally and importantly, it problematises the simplistic contexts in which assessments of the German role have hitherto been made. It draws attention to the complexities in the development and nature of German understandings of the escalating persecution and murder process, and sets the variety of German responses against the backgrounds of ethnic conflict in and around the Ottoman empire, and of the general war situation.

With hindsight, the executions, incarcerations and deportations of February, March and April 1915 appear to be the beginnings of the larger process. (Though it seems to this author that we need to assess the development of Turkish policy less in terms of specific established policies prior to spring 1915, and more in terms of broad phases of policy radicalisation, stimulated internally and externally, which did not fully crystallise into intentions for total, empire-wide murder until the early summer of 1915.[6]) In reaction Hans von Wangenheim in the German Constantinople Embassy did just what the British Foreign Office did:[7] he waited until there was no doubt at all as to what was happening, anticipating a certain level of brutality by the CUP-led regime but not the true extent of what was to come. For Wangenheim, ignorant of cause and effect concerning Armenian reactions to Turkish policy at the time, and observing events as they unfolded, Turkish actions in the spring months could be explained, even justified, as a violent ‘pacification’ policy, with reference to what he saw as instances of Armenian treachery in the earlier Turkish Caucasus offensive and particularly in Van. Indeed, it is probably the case, as the Austro-Hungarian ambassador Pallavicini intimated, that the April 24-6 arrests for instance did spring from a (highly paranoid and chauvinist) form of Turkish security policy in the light of the Anglo-French landings on the Dardanelles and against the backdrop of the Van uprising.[8] With the expansion of the deportations from mid-June, and the proliferation of reports of massacres and deprivations, the German interpretation of and reaction to Turkish policy changed qualitatively. Nevertheless, at no point was it suddenly apparent that ‘genocide’ was taking place - even had that frame of reference actually existed at the time - so it was never a straightforward question of Germany having to choose between fulfilment of its war aims and partnership with a regime that had just passed beyond the moral pale. The horror developed incrementally in the eyes of the German authorities, and small mitigations, even if illusory, were always to be found by those seeking them, in Turkish deceptions and false assurances. Not the weakest palliative was the ongoing belief that the Armenians and their ‘external allies’ had helped induce their own fate. In these important senses, most of the literature on ‘Germany and the Armenian genocide’, like the first wave of literature on Allied reactions to the Nazi Holocaust, is anachronistic, with justifiable outrage at the crime in its totality obscuring comprehension of the contemporaneous unfolding of events.
Anti-Armenian language is frequently cited as evidence of the antipathy of German diplomats and particularly soldiers. While there are clear cases of anti-Armenian sentiment, sometimes vehement, on behalf of military and civil officials ‘on the ground’ in the Ottoman territories, this by no means indicates unanimity about the most extreme policy imaginable: genocide. Such attitudes certainly served to rationalize a policy of non-intervention, and indicate feelings of cultural superiority that placed a lower value on human life in the near east, but that is again qualitatively a different level of responsibility to outright ‘complicity’ or ‘stimulation’. Besides, ‘European’ arrogance and superiority complexes were just as easily directed at Kurds and Turks as at Armenians, by both Germans and others, but there is no suggestion that this stereotyping provided a German impetus to murdering either of those groups.
Conversely, we must also accept that many representatives of the central powers believed that the Armenians were a subversive ethnic element, extrapolating this collective libel from limited instances of Armenian revolutionary activity before and during the war. This was partially based on the restricted knowledge among German officers of the real conditions in Turkish Armenia, and partially on Turkish propaganda. One useful way of contextualising German military attitudes is to examine the (largely unsuccessful) German policies of sponsoring nationalist uprisings within the Entente empires, be it of different Muslim populations against British rule, or of the non-(Great) Russian peoples against Russian rule. It helps to explain many of the indifferent reactions to the treatment of the Armenians if we think of the central powers as having accepted the idea of a series of nationalist conflicts not always fought by regular armies. The Armenians, like Serbs in the Austro-Hungarian worldview, were credited with the sort of collective partisan activity that German personnel were trying to inculcate in others. According to that logic, ‘military necessity’ could stretch to measures against swathes of the Armenian civilian population, up to and including - in a few proven cases - approving the Turkish deportation of whole communities.
To the extent that a small number of German officers who served in the Caucasian/Anatolian campaigns were implicated in approving Armenian deportations, a definition of ‘military necessity’ should be taken at face value as their motivation, rather than co-operation in a scheme of genocide per se, from which those officers tried to distance themselves literally, if not in moral terms successfully. The paranoia of the notion was certainly intensified by the propagandising of the Turks, and it may well be that in circular fashion, an ‘insurrection hysteria’[9] fed back into and further intensified Turkish hysteria at a fateful time for the Armenians. Whatever the precise impetus moving a few officer to direct or indirect acquiescence in the deportations, it remains clear that distinctions must be drawn between the course of developments in the genocide itself and German - and Entente and neutral - perceptions of these events, between the implementation of a policy of destruction by the Turkish government and the actions of a third party.
One inference to be drawn from the most negative assessments of the German role is a perpetuation of the wartime notions of the Entente and of the US Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau, namely that German imperialism could easily accommodate genocide as part of a grander geo-political strategy of gaining controlling influence in the former Ottoman empire and removing potential competition (hence the perpetuation of unfounded allegations against the geopolitical theorists Paul Rohrbach and Max von Oppenheim). However this is to misrepresent German imperialism of the time. It may even be to view it from a post-Nazi perspective of utter contempt for non-German life. European imperialism rested primarily on the dictates of power by economic expansion and prestige. For Germany, the former interest was not served by the huge disruption of the Turkish infrastructure that the permanent removal of the Armenians signified. Establishing pre-eminent influence in Turkey was an important aim - though the Young Turks had entirely contrary ideas - but not the inheritance of a crippled economy. The latter interest was damaged by Germany’s purported role in the genocide of a Christian people, as protests to the Turks and a multitude of diplomatic memoranda and official and unofficial objections within Germany observed. (The wholesale murder of black non-Christians in south-west Africa by the German military in the previous decade was another matter.) The issue of preserving prestige was compounded by the need to assuage neutral, particularly American, opinion, so the resultant German propaganda campaign is not indicative of guilt; rather, the German Foreign Office and the censor were playing the same game that the Entente were playing. The rhetoric of Armenian treachery spouted by the German propagandists, however, fed directly into every pre-existing stereotype of the Armenians and helped to pave the way for post-war denial, and perhaps also for the pig-headed refusal of some of the aforementioned German officers to accept that orchestrated massacres of Armenians had occurred.

Germany is not to be absolved of responsibility. On one hand, Liman von Sanders showed with his intervention in the deportation measures in Smyrna that forceful intercession was possible, and theoretically, therefore, that more intercession was possible. Further, from early days Germany had been happy to fuel the explosive ethnic situation on its own account with its involvement in stimulating nationalist movements in Entente territories and its support of the Jihad. Given the recent history of the region, it was always likely that such policies would open-up the near-eastern conflict to civilian populations. As such those policies are illustrative of a more general absence of humanitarian consideration which, if balking at genocide, probably anticipated collective reprisals against the civilian populations, particularly the Christian minorities of the Ottoman empire and particularly the Armenians.
Charges of moral cowardice, callousness, chauvinism, bureaucratic and military tunnel vision, and above all, blind pursuit of national interest, may justifiably be levelled at many of the Germans with an involvement in Turkish relations. The peculiarity of the accusations of German influence on the genocidal scheme is, however, twofold. First, they show no sign of being able to break down the rather rudimentary wartime propaganda of the Entente nations and of Turkey itself, with all its stereotyping of Prussian militarism and misperceptions of the level of German control of Turkish policy. Secondly, they contradict the research which many of the same accusers have conducted upon the genesis of the genocide in Turkish-Armenian relations. It is rather strange to chart the rise of the radical element of the CUP - with all of its clandestine scheming and ruthlessness and plans for ethnic-national homogenisation - against the long background of discrimination and periodic murder of the Armenians under various regimes, and then suddenly to introduce an alien element into the picture to explain the creation of a policy which had supposedly already been arrived at. Such arguments are not only inconsistent, they detract from the direct responsibility of the Ittihadists as progenitors of the genocide. Germany would have to wait for Hitler in order to develop the blueprint.

[1] Ulrich Trumpener, Germany and the Ottoman Empire 1914-1918 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U.P., 1968), 200-270; Frank Weber, Eagles on the Crescent: Germany, Austria and the Diplomacy of the Turkish Alliance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970), 144-59; Wolfdieter Bihl, Die Kaukasus-Politik der Mittelmächte: Teil I: Ihre Basis in der Orient-Politik und ihre Aktionen 1914-1917 (Vienna: Hermann Böhlaus Nachf., 1975), 166-72.
[2] Hilmar Kaiser, ‘The Baghdad Railway 1915-1916: A Case Study in German Resistance and Complicity’, in Richard Hovannisian (ed.), Remembrance and Denial: The Case of the Armenian Genocide (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State U.P., 1999) 67-112.
[3] Eberhard Count Wolfskeel von Reichenberg, Zeitoun, Mousa Dagh, Ourfa: Letters on the Armenian Genocide, ed. Hilmar Kaiser, (Princeton, NJ: Gomidas Institute, 2001).
[4] Vahakn Dadrian, The History of the Armenian Genocide: Ethnic Conflict from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Caucasus (Providence, RI: 1995), 248-300; id., German Responsibility in the Armenian Genocide: A Review of the Historical Evidence of German Complicity (Watertown, Mass: Blue Crane, 1996); Artem Ohandjanian, Armenian: der verschwiegene Völkermord (Vienna: Böhlau, 1989), 202-21; specifically on the complicity of the German military, Christoph Dinkel, ‘German Officers and the Armenian Genocide’, Armenian Review, vol. 44, no. 1 (1991), 77-133. See also Gabriele Yonan, Ein vergessener Holocaust: Die Vernichtung der christlichen Assyrer in der Türkei (Göttingen and Vienna: Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker, 1989), 95-112, 263-5. For a somewhat more balanced early view, see Heinrich Vierbücher, Was die kaiserliche Regierung den deutschen Untertanen verschwiegen hat. Armenien 1915. Die Abschlachtung eines Kulturvolkes durch die Türken (Hamburg: Fachelreiter Verlag, 1930).
[5] Wolfgang Gust, Der Völkermord an den Armeniern. Die Tragödie des ältesten Christenvolkes der Welt (Munich: Hanser, 1993).
[6] This is the subject of forthcoming paper by the author which is near to completion.
[7] Nassibian, Britain and the Armenian Question, 70-3, shows how full recognition of the magnitude of events only crystallised over the period up to early September.
[8] Haus- Hof- und Staatsarchiv, Vienna, Politisches Archiv, I (Allgemeines), Karton 943, Pera 27 April 1915.
[9] An expression coined in Dinkel, ‘German Officers’.

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